The Center Theatre Group presented the United States premiere of The Chichester Festival Theatre Production of The Last Confession on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. The play stars the multiple award-winning actor David Suchet as Cardinal Giovanni Benelli. Suchet's character is the priest who relentlessly campaigned for Cardinal Albino Luciani’s advancement to the papacy after the death of Pope Paul IV. The story concerns Cardinal Benelli's last confession to The Confessor, played by Philip Craig.
The play begins with Cardinal Benelli telling The Confessor about the corruption caused by Vatican Bishop Paul Marcinkus (played by Stuart Milligan) and Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot (played by Nigel Bennett) during Pope Paul IV’s (played by Donald Douglas) papacy. Benelli urges Pope Paul IV to rid the Vatican of these corrupt Church and Curia officials but he refuses.
After the death of Pope Paul IV, Benelli begins a relentless campaign to advance Cardinal Albino Luciani (played by Richard O’Callaghan) to the papacy. Luciani and several of the Cardinals are against Luciani’s advancement for a variety of reasons but Benelli’s determination to make Luciani Pope wins out. Luciani reluctantly accepts his role as Pope and takes the name of John Paul I.
As Pope, John Paul I begins implementing plans to change several long-standing Church and Curia policies and to transfer and remove several senior priests at The Vatican as well as The Vatican’s banker. The Pope faces the power and resistance of the Curia to his proposed changes head on but is overwhelmed by members of the Curia’s steadfast resistance. He is found dead in his bed after serving just 33 days into his papacy.
The sanctity of the Vatican is threatened when confusion over the cause of the Pope's death runs rampant after several inconsistencies surface during the questioning of the Cardinals and disappearance of Monsignor Magee (played by David Ferry) about who knew what and when and who actually found the Pope's body. Benelli convenes a panel of Cardinals to investigate the Pope’s sudden death. The investigation is halted when Benelli is convinced by one of the other Cardinals that no good will come to the Church or the Curia should they continue the investigation. He urges Banelli to focus on becoming the new Pope himself. Benelli decides to become Pope but concedes after The Curia and several other Cardinals ban against him. They elect a compromise candidate, Karol Wojtyla of Poland,who becomes Pope John Paul II.
In the play, it is not clear whether The Confessor (played by Philip Craig) to whom Banelli makes his confession in Act One is actually Cardinal Wojtyla (also played by Philip Craig) who later becomes Pope John Paul II. In Act II, this Confessor/Pope Paul II and Banelli cannot see eye to eye about the sudden death of Luciani and other alleged sins so they end up not absolving each other of their mutual sins.
The multiple award-winning actor David Suchet is brilliant in his role as Cardinal Benelli to the point that his performance received a roaring standing ovation at the end of the play. All of the supporting roles were strong and performed with great believability.
Written by Roger Crane and directed by Jonathan Church, the performance lasted approximately two hours and 30 minutes including an intermission. The Last Confession runs through July 6, 2014 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets are available here.